Dolling Up Your Brand in Social Media

Written By Garniasih


Introduction and Key Question

Many have pointed out the importance of having a solid brand identity to drive business strategy (Joachimsthaler & Aaker, 1997; Sinek, 2010). The idea and core values of a brand are elements that make people relate beyond consumption. In the digital world where time and space barrier decrease, both positive and negative interactivity of a brand are harder to contain (Hanna, Rohm, & Crittenden, 2011). Therefore, the rise of social media also urges for companies to get the branding fundamentals right (Barwise & Meehan, 2010). Leveraging the use of social media has many to do with audience profiling within an action plan (Scott, 2007). Audience profiling in the toy industry is peculiar since children will eventually grow out of their age. However, there are symptoms where even adults have the inner child within them, the playfulness they long for when they were kids (Popcorn, 1992), hence still able to relate to items that are initially targeted for children. This in one hand, is considered as an opportunity for toy marketers. On the other side, a very common phenomenon nowadays is to find children engage in social media such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and blogs (O’Keeffe et al., 2011). Although 13 years is the established minimum age for most of these sites, concerns on being too young and not able to reasonably judge on the influence of advertisement have arisen on the effect of social media for children (Calvert, 2004). Such opportunity and challenge gap is of great interest, arising the question on how the toy industry uses social media interactivity for its branding strategy across various segments. In short, this paper in general contributes to the field of branding in social media.

Case Study

The phenomenon of interest within the toy industry in this paper is a brand of dolls and accessories by Mattel, namely Barbie.  While usual criticism arises on the issue of body image and identity, Barbie and its social media activity in 2011 revolved around a marketing campaign of reuniting the doll couple, Ken and Barbie, after their split in 2004 (Swallow, 2011). Social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and YouTube were integrated to spread the love story. Unlike current Barbie social media campaign that is prepared for a new play set mansion launch by the end of 2013, the 2011-love story was not directly linked to any of Mattel’s dolls and accessories sale. Nevertheless the two-months campaign resulted in huge success across social media platforms as fan number in Facebook Page increased by 34%, 200% increase in engagement, more than five million official Barbie website pageviews, and hundreds of thousands votes on the couple reunion finale (Social Mallard, 2012).

Figure 1 Barbie and Ken Love Campaign.jpg

Figure - Barbie and Ken Love Campaign

Conceptual Framework

Barbie’s brand performance through social media is of great analysis interest in terms of its segment and brand engagement. It is needless to say that the twist of this campaign lies in the interactivity nature that the different segments were involved in. To look further into Barbie’s social media brand performance, this paper will use two major conceptual frameworks from the course literature, namely the brand structural elements by Joachimsthaler and Aaker (1997) and the improvisational theater metaphor by Singh and Sonnenburg (2012).

The approach into understanding structural elements of a brand is fairly new (Tam, 2012). There is no definite and exact concept model when it comes to understanding how the mind is influenced by brands. Joachimstaler and Aaker (1997) argued that a strong and effective brand identity is strongly related to the vision and values of the company in order to serve as the guideline for any program and communication activities. The idea is also in line with what Harris and Dechernatony (2001) as well as de Charlatony (1999) mentioned, that a brand identity is comprised of brand vision, brand culture, positioning, personality, relationship, and presentation. Furthermore, Urde (2009) added that values are broader concepts that contain the most important dimensions of a corporate brand. Therefore, brand identity is deemed essential in order to have a clear alignment between what the brand stands for and how the targeted audience perceives the brand.

Having stated the element of brand identity, the paper will further look into how marketers use digital channel. The metaphor of improvisational theater for brand performances in social media focuses on storytelling that leads to a brand’s co-creation, hence keeping the brand story alive in social media (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). As it is a metaphor, key features on improvisational theater are transferred into the social media scene involving a main star (the brand), supporting players (brand owner and consumers), and the stage (social media). The idea of improvisation is that consumers as audience most often do not act passively. This is in line with previous studies that stories in social media are built from brand owners but act in response to how audience behave, thus resulting in an interactive co-creation (Dechernatony & Christodoulides, 2004; Vargo & Lusch, 2004). However, improvisational theater focuses mainly on the process of improvisation, new stories unfold and ongoing interactivity. The latter is defined as the facility for individuals and companies to directly communicate with each other without regard to distance or time (Blattberg & Deighton, 1991).


Barbie is a brand from Mattel, a corporation in the toy industry that has a vision of “Creating the future of play”, with four core values comprised of “play to grow, play together, play with passion, and play fair” (Mattel, 2013). It is interesting to discover that the brand Barbie itself does not have its own brand vision and mission stated in its official website nor social media platforms. Yet there are cultural traces that the brand leaves behind from the early 50s up to this day.  The brand experienced many changes in regards to play, children and beauty (Belinda, 2011). It has transformed from a mere doll, into a character of independent woman that allowed children to relate to their future dreams; from the ideal beauty into the ideal role for women at household, career, and relationships; and from a stereotyped blond fair female into a multicultural global citizen. The brand has proven to adapt itself across time and history, making sure for the play experience to stay relevant now and in the future.

Existing for more than 60 years, Mattel realizes that its previous consumers who have grown into adulthood should still be part of the thrilling Barbie-journey as stated by Stephanie Cota, SVP of worldwide marketing for Mattel, “The Barbie brand resonates with more than one generations, from consumers who played with the doll as children, to those who love the brand today.” (Raja, et al. 2011).  The audience profiling has widened and the reason for to exist. Due to this widened audience profiling, its marketing campaign has to somewhat resonate across various target groups for the same brand. After knowing the Barbie brand identity, the following discussion will bridge its widened consumer profile and its brand performance in social media.

With the company’s vision to create the future of play, there exists great relevance between the 2011 Barbie-Ken reunited love campaign and its widened targeted audience. Using the improvisational theater metaphor by Singh and Sonnenburg (2012), the brand succeeded in merging different profile segments within one campaign.

The Story Telling

The story circles around the dilemmatic decision of whether or not Barbie and Ken should reunite after their 2004 breakup. A romantic love story is a theme that many can relate to across different age.  The fairytale-like couple reflects a strong and honest love relationship throughout the years, providing some sense of dream and hope for every little girl in finding their prince charming, while a dilemmatic decision-making experience speaks to many of the adult consumers. 

The Main Star (brand)

The damsel in distress is the main star and Barbie follows its brand identity being closely attached to the company’s vision in creating the future of play. It has proven that in the future, their targeted audience has widened and the brand wants to stay relevant across various age segments.

Supporting Players (brand owner and consumers)

The audience was greatly involved into the decision-making for Barbie to take Ken Back in an online voting platform and Love-O-Meter created through (Swallow, 2011). The excitement to the story was added as Barbie continually ask the audience of what Ken might be doing and thinking, involving interactivity and empowering consumers to not solely interact with the firm but with fellow consumers (Hoffman & Novak, 1996). This has made the brand’s destiny to be seemingly dependent on consumers as opposed to brand owners, a proof to the non-hierarchical nature of todays branding in the post-internet era (Chrisodoulides, 2009).

Figure 2 Barbie Facebook Interactivity.jpg

Figure - Barbie Facebook Interactivity

The Stage (social media)

Figure 3 Barbie and Ken Love Campaign in Social Media.jpg

Figure - Barbie and Ken Love Campaign in Social Media

Social media platforms including blog, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and YouTube were integrated to spread the love story. Each one serves a different purpose in leveraging the campaign, for instance, the Youtube video where Ken is seen to join an online dating site only to find that Barbie was his true match (Swallow, 2011).  The blog serves as Barbie’s daily diaries, while Facebook and Twitter were for the ongoing updates and consultation platform for interactions to happen.

Combining the two conceptual frameworks together of brand identity element and improvisational theater metaphor in social media, there exist some further analysis of challenges and opportunities for Barbie in the toy industry.


  • The toy industry audience profiling is peculiar since its consumer cycle is more apparent once children step out of the play zone and heads for adulthood. This has great relevance to the second challenge as follows.

  • Ongoing interactivity and improvised story responses from children and adults may vary a great deal due to their different psychological development. In the Barbie case, children were seen to be more responsive when Barbie raised the question of what Ken was doing as opposed to when asked how their first date should be after being reunited (Barbie Facebook, 2011).

  • With high level of interactivity and hence the story improvisation, consumers in social media act as new host of factors outside the brand owner’s control. If the loss of control is too extensive, it might interfere with the brand’s values (Deighton, 2008; Chrisodoulides, 2009). Therefore brand managers must exercise a fair amount of control over the framework and rules for brand participation in social media (Hoffman & Fodor, 2010).


  • If following the brand’s identity as a true guideline, the toy industry can retain its past consumers through participation in social media settings, for instance by initiating engagement and providing a platform for conversations (Schau, Muñiz, & Arnould 2009), with improvised stories that reflects the brand values hence relating to various segments.

  • Engaging children through stories and interactivity is a subtle way of advertising thus not disregarding the regulation of hard selling to children.

  • Consumers who feel empowered for being able to determine how the story goes have higher level of engagement. Hence such strategies in computer-mediated environments involve inter alia building relationships, interactivity, and finally provide better-tailored offerings (de Chernatony & Christodoulides, 2004).


To conclude, the case study has shown that getting the brand’s fundamental elements right is essential prior to engaging in social media. As Joachimstaler and Aaker (1997) stated, having a strong and clear identity are a great factor in driving the business strategy forward, and this also applies to brands that experience audience profiling shift throughout times. Branding performances in social media vary across industries (Armelli & Villanueva, 2011), and in the case of Barbie as a great brand in the toy category, social media have managed to be a complementary impact for an already strong brand identity. Moreover, the Barbie love story campaign strengthens previous study in the improvisational theater metaphor, where the latter works even across different target segments for both children and adults relate as much to storytelling and interactivity.


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